Sharks

After a perfect week, Sharks have playoff breathing room with three weeks to go

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After a perfect week, Sharks have playoff breathing room with three weeks to go

The Sharks’ playoff outlook is a lot rosier after winning all four of their games last week. They are now four points clear of the Los Angeles Kings in the second Wild Card spot, and three points up the Anaheim Ducks, who are third place in the Pacific Division.

Those are four-point and three-point improvements, respectively, over those same spots last week. The Sharks even picked up ground on the first-place Vegas Golden Knights, and are eight points back of the Pacific’s leaders, with two head-to-head matchups remaining.

That’s not quite close enough to warrant inclusion in a look at the playoff picture headed into the week, but could be next week if San Jose continues to make up ground. Otherwise, it’s still worth examining where the Sharks stand in regards to the Pacific and the Wild Card.

San Jose Sharks (Second in the Pacific, 89 points)

Games Remaining: 10

On the Docket:  3/20 vs New Jersey, 3/22 vs Vegas, 3/24 vs Calgary

Outlook: Over the next two weeks, the schedule really starts to become difficult. San Jose has only two games remaining against teams on the outside looking in, and is just 2-6-2 in its last 10 against teams currently in a playoff spot. If that trend continues, the newfound breathing room could start to disappear rather quickly.

Anaheim Ducks (Third in the Pacific, 86 points)

Games Remaining: Nine

On the Docket: 3/21 at Calgary, 3/23 at Winnipeg, 3/25 at Edmonton

Outlook: The Ducks have now won three in a row, including next Sunday against the red-hot New Jersey Devils. They’ll play four of their final five road games in the next nine days, and all but one of their opponents is not in playoff position. Anaheim’s just 15-14-7 away from the Honda Center, though. With the fewest games remaining of any playoff team, the Ducks will help to move up any further.

Colorado Avalanche (First Wild Card, 86 points)

Games Remaining: 10

On the Docket: 3/20 at Chicago, 3/22 vs Los Angeles, 3/24 vs Vegas

Outlook: Give it up for surefire Hart Trophy finalist Nathan MacKinnon and the Avalanche, winners of three of four last week. Other than a slip-up on the second night of a back-to-back in Nashville, Colorado was outright dominant, outscoring opponents 16-7. A midweek matchup against Los Angeles could create some Wild Card separation.

Los Angeles Kings (Second Wild Card, 84 points)

Games Remaining: 10

On the Docket: 3/19 at Minnesota, 3/20 at Winnipeg, 3/22 at Colorado, 3/24 at Edmonton

Outlook: The Kings picked up points in three of four, including on both nights of a back-to-back. Their schedule really picks up this week, as they’ll face three playoff-bound teams from the Central on the road. The struggling Stars remain on their heels, although the Kings have a game in hand.

Dallas Stars (Ninth in the West, 84 points)

Games Remaining: Nine

On the Docket: 3/20 at Washington, 3/23 vs Boston. 3/25 vs Vancouver

Outlook: Is Dallas in the middle of a Lone Star letdown? We wrote last week that a difficult schedule could create openings for the teams chasing them and boy, did it ever. The Stars went 0-2-2 on the week, and picked up just one point against the lottery-bound Montreal Canadiens and Ottawa Senators. They’ll surely relish a matchup against the Canucks in six days, as it’s their only remaining game against a non-playoff team.

St. Louis Blues (10th in the West, 83 points)

Games Remaining: 10

On the Docket: 3/21 vs Boston, 3/23 vs Vancouver, 3/24 at Columbus

Outlook: For the second straight season, it’s not quite time to stick a fork in the St. Louis Blues. Yes, they are once again in the playoff hunt after trading one of their best players at the trade deadline, and won three out of four to move with in a point of the final Wild Card spot. The Blues have now won four of five, and still have an uphill climb ahead. After last season, is it ever safe to rule them out?

The Departed: Calgary Flames (11th in the West, 80 points)

This section is reserved for teams that have fallen out of the playoff picture since our last look at the playoff picture, and the Calgary Flames have earned(?) the inaugural (dis)honor. The Flames failed to keep the door to the playoffs ajar thanks to a 7-4 loss to the Sharks on Friday, and it slammed shut after a 4-0 loss in Sin City on Sunday. They have to jump three teams and cover four points of ground to earn a Wild Card spot. The latest stretch stings, but the Flames will likely look on a four-game, post-trade deadline losing streak as when their playoff hopes burned out.

Sharks will have hands full with top Golden Knights line

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Sharks will have hands full with top Golden Knights line

The Vegas Golden Knights are not a one-line team, but one line will worry the Sharks most in the second round. 

The top trio of William Karlsson, Jonathan Marchessault, and Reilly Smith was one of the league's best this season. Only Colorado's Gabriel Landeskog, Nathan MacKinnon, and Mikko Rantanen were on the ice for more five-on-five goals together in the regular season (47) than Vegas' first line (46), according to Corsica Hockey. In just under 700 five-on-five minutes together, they controlled 55.54 percent of the shot attempts, 56.55 percent of the shots, 56.41 percent of the expected goals, and two-thirds of the goals, outscoring opponents 46-23. 

They did so playing primarily against the team's top players. According to HockeyViz, Karlsson, Marchessault, and Smith spent an above-average amount of time matched with their opponent's top-four forwards and top-three defensemen. Per Corsica, no Vegas forwards faced competition that accounted for a higher percentage of their team's ice time, a higher percentage of shot attempts, or a higher percentage of expected goals in the regular season.

Golden Knights head coach Gerard Gallant continued to use them this way in the first round against the Los Angeles Kings. They were attached to the hips of Los Angeles' top line, playing nearly an hour of five-on-five time against Anze Kopitar alone, according to Natural Stat Trick. Kopitar's next-most common forward opponent, James Neal, played only 15 minutes against him five-on-five in the entire series. 

When the Sharks and Golden Knights face off in Sin City later this week, Karlsson, Marchessault, and Smith will undoubtedly see a lot of San Jose defensemen Justin Braun and Marc-Edouard Vlasic. Gallant will likely primarily ice his first line against Peter DeBoer's top trio of Joonas Donskoi, Evander Kane, and Joe Pavelski, especially if recent history is any indication. Smith was injured the last time the teams played on March 31, but Marchessault and Karlsson played (at least) three more minutes against Donskoi, Kane, and Pavelski than any other San Jose forwards. 

It will be interesting if those same matchups are used when the series shifts to SAP Center for Games 3, 4, and possibly 6. On March 22, the last Sharks-Golden Knights game in San Jose, Mikkel Boedker, Logan Couture, and Tomas Hertl drew Marchessault and Karlsson (Smith was hurt then, too) most of the game. Boedker, Couture, and Hertl functioned as San Jose's shutdown line in the first round, playing most of their minutes against Ryan Getzlaf and Rickard Rakell, who consistently remained on the Anaheim Ducks' top line.

No matter which Sharks line draws Karlsson, Marchessault, and Smith, it will need to improve on its first-round performance. San Jose's top-six forwards, who spent most of their time against Anaheim's top-two lines, were the team's six-worst forwards in terms of five-on-five corsi-for percentage (none eclipsed 43 percent), and only Couture was not outshot, according to Corsica Hockey. None of them were outscored five-on-five, but that was largely owed to the team's strong finishing ability and the outstanding play of Martin Jones in net. 

Jones is a proven playoff performer, but the Sharks were unlikely to continue to score on nearly 12 percent of their five-on-five shots before factoring in the presence of Marc-Andre Fleury, the playoff leader in five-on-five save percentage, in the opposite crease. That's even less likely now. Plus, the Golden Knights are far more disciplined (plus-16 penalty differential in the regular season) than the Ducks (minus-60), so San Jose likely won't be able to mask any five-on-five mismatches with a strong power play.  

Thus, it'll go a long way for the Sharks if their top-six forwards keep pace with Karlsson, Marchessault, and Smith. Getting the best of the matchup would go even further.  

Speedy Sharks and Golden Knights ready to fly on the ice in second round

Speedy Sharks and Golden Knights ready to fly on the ice in second round

Speed kills, and it claimed another two victims in the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs: The Anaheim Ducks and Los Angeles Kings. The "heavy" playing style that powered three combined championships in Southern California since 2007 was left in the dust by a pair of speedier division rivals, the Sharks and Vegas Golden Knights, en route to the only sweeps so far this postseason. 

San Jose learned this lesson firsthand. In a six-game series loss during the 2016 Stanley Cup Final, the Sharks could not keep up with the Pittsburgh Penguins' team speed.

Pittsburgh deployed three, mobile defensive pairings and sprinkled speed on all four forward lines. San Jose, meanwhile, had a few fast forwards in the lineup and strong skaters among its top-four defensemen, but its speed was only a relative strength against teams in the Western Conference.

Following the loss in the Final, the Sharks have infused their lineup with speed and skating ability. Mikkel Boedker was signed the following summer, and Evander Kane was acquired at this year's trade deadline. Kevin Labanc, Timo Meier, and Marcus Sorensen debuted last season. Dylan DeMelo, Tim Heed, and Joakim Ryan played extended NHL minutes this season, and there's nary a Roman Polak in sight. 

Take it all together, and San Jose played at a high pace this season. Using team-level shot-attempt rates as a proxy for pace of play, as Sean Tierney of HockeyGraphs and The Athletic did with the graph shown below, the Sharks played at the league's third-highest pace this season. 

The Ducks were pretty far behind the Sharks on the season, at a rate of about five fewer shot attempts per hour. Keep in mind that data includes 67 games of Cam Fowler, one of Anaheim's best skaters on the blueline who missed the entirety of the first round with a shoulder injury. The Golden Knights don't rank as highly as one might expect, but still played at a faster pace than the Kings.

Vegas didn't have the same inciting incident as San Jose to fill its roster with strong skaters, considering the expansion team didn't play its first game until October. Instead, the Golden Knights saw the writing on the wall, and placed a premium on skating ability in the expansion draft, and in adding to their team afterward. 

"That was our basis for who we chose," Vegas pro scout Kelly Kisio told NBC Sports California in a February interview. "Guys that had hockey sense, and guys that could skate. If you have those guys, they will somehow make it happen."

43-goal scorer William Karlsson is a burner, and they acquired another one, Tomas Tatar, at the trade deadline. Blue-chip blueliners Nate Schmidt and Shea Theodore were prized for their mobility well before landing in Sin City. Even bottom-six forwards like Pierre-Edouard Bellemare and depth defensemen like Jon Merrill are good skaters. 

The disparity was clear in Vegas' first-round series with Los Angeles. Five-on-five, only three teams in the first round have accounted for a higher percentage of expected goals entering Friday (Winnipeg Jets, Tampa Bay Lightning, and Washington Capitals) than the Golden Knights, according to Corsica Hockey. 

Neither Vegas nor San jose will enjoy gap in skating ability against one another, however, setting up a what should be a standout second-round matchup. The games will be fast, but the length of the first-ever playoff series between the two should be anything but.